“The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty” by Alexander Lee. Doubleday, 2014. $30.
The Italian Renaissance is generally regarded as “a time in which heroically talented artists revived the culture of antiquity to create both cities and societies that were themselves works of art.”
In his seminal “Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien” (1860), Jacob Burckhardt even proclaimed it the moment when “man became a spiritual individual.” British historian Alexander Lee does not disagree, but insists that this cultural efflorescence be placed in its social, political and economic context: these cultural flowers bloomed on a dung heap.
The condottieri, the mercenary military commanders of the day like Federico de Montefeltro and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, were “at best ... supercharged bandits, plundering, cheating, and extorting at will, and at worst ... cruel tyrants, given to conspiracies, poisoning, and murder.” They had themselves painted as scholars and sculpted as heroes.
Florence, the great center of Renaissance painting, sculpture and scholarship, was beset with poverty, crime, rampant disease, every perversion imaginable, enormous disparities of wealth and bitter social rivalries. Florentine politics were bloody — the Ciompi Revolt, the Pazzi Conspiracy, the purge of Savonarola. By the mid-1400s, the Medici family imposed its hegemony through wealth gained as merchant banker to the Vatican. Shrewdly, they knew “how to use the arts to craft a public image far removed from the seamy realities of life.”
Rome was worse because the Vatican and its Curia wallowed in “debt, drunkenness, and debauchery ... greed, gluttony, and lust.” The architecture and art commissioned by the Renaissance popes were “far from being reflections of high-minded ideals or deep seated faith” but were instead “testaments to the overpowering sense of ambition.”
The Sistine Chapel was built between 1473 and 1481 by Sixtus IV, a member of the influential della Rovere family. Almost three decades later, a second della Rovere pope, Julius II, his nephew, hired Michelangelo to paint its ceiling (1508-12). Another quarter century later, a pope from the Medici family, Clement VII, had Michelangelo paint the altar wall (1535-41).
Yet before drawing hasty and invidious conclusions, consider this scene from a classic film “The Third Man” (1949), when Harry Lime (Orson Welles) confronts his moralistic friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten): “Don’t be so gloomy.
After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War (1913)”.